Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The Mountain of Heroes and places to go in Austria

From Burg Kreuzenstein, a short drive north-east takes us to another nineteenth-century folly, the Heldenberg ('Mountain of Heroes'). This is truly Austria's Valhalla, a unique collection of over a hundred tin busts of the great Austrian, Irish, German, French and even Ser¬bian generals who served the Habsburgs in the stormy years 1848-9, when the empire was threatened from all sides by revolutionaries.

This bizarre monument owes its creation to the memory of Field ¬Marshal Radetsky who, though in his eighties, was wheeled out to deal with the emergency in Italy, defeating armies twice the size of his own by skilful manoeuvring and brilliant tactics. A man of extravagant tastes in his private life, reflecting the hedonism of a true soldier, Radetsky ran up debts of thousands of crowns. Freiherr Joseph von Parkfrieder, a tin merchant who had made his fortune supplying this material to the Austrian court, admired the marshal so much that he promised to pay all his debts if Radetsky, when he died, allowed Parkfrieder to bury his body on a hill celebrating the Austrian empire's feats of arms. Radetsky agreed, as did another general, Wimpfen, who had served as Archduke Karl's chief of staff at the battle of Aspern). Around these Parkfrieder proceeded to erect busts of every 'distinguished' general, officer and, when these ran out, private in the Austrian army.

The effect is impressive if grotesque. The four life size tin knights in armour who guard what is now a home for war injured are perhaps the most guilty offenders, although the ever-enchanted metal virgins who mark the path to Radetsky's tomb run them a close second. The tomb itself is remarkable for its errors of dates (Aspern 1805, for example) but none the less suitably severe. In Biedermeier writing above the steps, a notice warns that just 'because we are silent, it does not mean we are dead', a final salvo from the octogenarian marshal sufficient to inhibit anyone thinking of carving their initials on the wall. It is ironic that among the decorations displayed here are Radetsky's Russian medals awarded to him in the Napoleonic wars by the Tsar. Russian troops were so impressed by these when they invaded Austria in 1945 that no damage was done to any of this bizarre statuary.

The Wachau Austria

The road winds down to the Danube where, following the signs to Krems it soon reaches the beginning of the Wachau, the name given to the part of the Danube valley which lies between Melk and Krems, a stretch of about twenty miles. No other river landscape in Europe can equal the Wachau for charm, beauty, art and architectural treasures. Almost every crest is crowned with some glittering abbey or castle, whIle the small villages along the banks of the Danube below are equally rich in medieval houses and churches.

Krems is typical of these. An old wine town mentioned as early as 955 as a 'Reichsfeste' ('stronghold of the realm'), it is full of narrow streets with arcades which give the town a faintly north Italian air.

Near the Parish church of St Veit, designed by Biasino in 1620, there are a number of medieval houses, including one which boasts a fine Teutonic 'Erker' corner window and which now serves as the Town Hall (Rathaus). From the main square, steps lead up to the oldest church in the town, the Piaristenkirche, a late Gothic building of about 1520 with a light high interior.

The stalls, with their wooden ball decoration, seem to be related to those executed for the church of the Dominicans in Vienna and may even be by the same hand. Unfortunately, with evel y visit there seem to be fewer of these eccentric devices left. The view from the church on a clear day is extensive. Opposite rise the rather oriental onion-domed towers of the enormous abbey at Gottweig, while below the Danube winds its way between dramatic cliffs towards Diirntein. Descending to the right we come to a small square (Taglicher Markt) with several early seventeenth-century houses (Nos. 2 and 5 are even earlier) and a quiet bar with reasonable food. Down to the left, there are more sophisticated restaurants in the Hoher Markt, a square which has in its north-east corner the plain fac;ade of the Institut der Englischen Fraulein.

Austria Cheap Car hire for Airports

Between 1 April and 1 November it is possible to cycle along the long narrow street which links Krems with its neighbour, Stein, thanks to the convenient custom of the Austrian railways whereby cycles are avail¬able for hire at every railway station. Booked in advance (one week's notice is advised), the bicycle can be collected at Krems and left at Melk station after the ride, from where it will be returned to Krems at no extra cost.

Otherwise, the walk from Krems to Stein is no less enjoyable. On each side there are houses which will absorb any architectural historian and the long straight road which leads to the arch of the town gate is no less well endowed with places to sit and drink a glass of refreshing Wachau Veltliner.

On the left, along the Danube, are several pleasing squares, while on the right lie a number of churches which are now museums. The most interesting of these is the town museum, housed in the thirteenth¬ century Dominican church, on the Theaterplatz, where former cloisters house a wine museum.

Under the Kremser Tor or gate is Stein, which if anything is even more unspoilt and picturesque than Krems. The parish church of St Nicholas and its rectory have elaborate Baroque stucco work. Steps lead up to the Frauenbergkirche, an early Gothic fourteenth-century church with a fine view. Descending to the right, there are several private wine cellars where it is possible to taste and buy some of the region's renowned white wines, which are a welcome contrast to the more acidic wines offered in Vienna. Down in the Landstrasse are several more picturesque houses, of which the former toll house at No. 135, with its alcove and rich Re¬naissance decorations, is perhaps the finest.

The people of Stein are rightly proud of their town's heritage and it is possible to detect certain contempt for the inhabitants of the nearby capital city. Despite the yearly invasion of tourists, the visitor will find these Wachau people a kind and hospitable folk who will go to enormous lengths to help and guide one through this beautiful part of the country.

From Stein, a cycling road rises up to Diirnstein. For those on foot, a small railway station offers a train at regular intervals to Diirnstein, cutting through several dramatic outcrops of rock. Between Stein and Diirnstein rises a tall classical monument erected in 1805 to com¬memorate a victory over Napoleon's troops here.

Unter Loiben has a Gothic church with a pleasing picture by Kremser Schmidt (1718-1801), an artist to be encountered again in Diirnstein. The town itself is perhaps the most picturesque spot in the entire Wachau. The town is minute, boasting a population of barely a thousand souls. It is dominated by the extensive ruins of the castle (ascent twenty¬ five minutes) from the summit of which there is an unsurpassed view of the valley. The castle was stormed on many occasions and was finally reduced by the Swedes in 1645. As a ruin, it is thus contemporary with the remains of many English castles which had to face Cromwell's armies.

But Diirnstein is perhaps best remembered for the legend that from
December 1l92 to March 1193 it was the prison of Richard the Lion¬heart. It may be recalled that at the siege of Acre, Richard hurled the standard of the Austrian Archduke Leopold from the ramparts as he considered it an insult that any flag should fly over the Holy Land before the standard bearing the three lions of England. This unfortunate disagreement over protocol resulted in the jealous Leopold placing a price on Richard's head, with the consequence that shortly after his landing at Trieste he was apprehended and eventually conveyed to this castle. Whether, as legend relates, Blondel found his master by sing¬ing underneath the windows of the castles of the Wachau is a matter for conjecture, beyond the scope of this guide, but there can have been no more worthy setting acoustically or visually for the minstrel's

The monastery in Diirnstein Austria

Below, the actual town of Diirnstein possesses fewer buildings than
its neighbours to attract the eye, but there is a fine eighteenth-century monastery, formerly a convent, near the river, while the town church contains more paintings by Kremser Schmidt. The Schloss Hotel, con¬sidered one of the top establishments in the world of its kind, has a charming terrace which in summer is a favourite venue for lunch. The black Bulgarian or Russian tugs which slowly power their way up river are perhaps the most curious examples of the river's traffic. The ships of the First Danube Steam Ship Company call at Diirnstein and offer probably the most relaxing way of seeing the Wachau between here and Melk. But if the journey is continued by bicycle, the road to Melk offers a number of picturesque distractions.

At Weissenkirchen, there are the remains of medieval fortifica¬tions, and above the village, which is idyllically situated among vine¬clad hills, there is a fourteenth-century late Gothic church. Inevitably the church, like so many in Austria, underwent insensitive Baroque conversion in the late seventeenth century. None the less, it contains some memorable paintings by two nineteenth-century artists, Rudolf Ait and Jacob Schindler, who spent much of their time painting in the Wachau.

Beyond Weissenkirchen is another charming village called St. Michael.The church is a late Gothic basilica and has an interesting roof. Nearby is a curious building which at first glance stems to be a chapel. But by brushing the dust off a small squint-like window a sinister scene is revealed: on an altar lie score after score of madly grinning skulls the debris of a fourteenth-century charnel house.

On the Danube side of the village is an impressive defensive tower that once guarded the road, which now continues to Spitz Anderdonau,a mile or so beyond, another picturesque wine-growing village (it has trains to Vienna). Both the old Town Hall with its frescoes and the seventeenth-century Schloss Spitz merit a visit, while high above the town rise the thirteenth-century ruins of Schloss Hinterhaus, destroyed by the French in 1809.

The road continues through Oberndorf and Willendorf to Aggsbach Markt, from where a passenger ferry crosses the Danube to the village of Aggsbach, which is again dominated by a picturesque ruin, Aggsbach castle. Constructed in the twelfth century, the castle was bitterly con¬tested throughout its history until in 1529 the Turks invested it for over a month before finally setting fire to it. None the less, its kitchen, dining room and Gothic chapel as well as the small rose garden, which com¬mands such a fine view over the Danube, are still all to be seen if one can muster enough energy for the ascent.

Having crossed the Danube, the road continues to Schonbiihel with its empire-style chateau and Baroque Servite monastery (suitable re¬freshment), before continuing six miles to the magnificent climax of the Wachau at Melk.